Feb 12, 2006

NASABA and the DEA: What the?!

The North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) put out a problematic press release nearly two weeks ago, which at the time of this writing, still isn't on their site. I wrote much of this response immediately after hearing about this new program, but pocketed it in hope of finding out more about it. However, upon reading this post at Sepia about it, I commented, and figured I should post this since I'm still confused about what they (NASABA) are trying to do.

This time, in relation to Operation Meth Merchant, the sting and profiling of predominantly South Asian merchants in Atlanta, Georgia, NASABA has decided to "partner" with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to create a national program to "educate" South Asian merchants about meth production and usage. I really don't understand this project on a few objective levels, and I'm deeply offended by it on another level, because I feel like NASABA has decided to be the voice of the community without much consultation with anyone. Even that they claim to speak on behalf of South Asian attorneys in North America is problematic, but that's a different post.

First of all - the DEA is a very, very problematic agency, specifically because the so-called "war on drugs" has decimated communities of color and placed the crosshairs squarely on the hearts of the small-time pushers when the much larger fish roam free. And this is not just the opinion of someone who doesn't trust in the benevolence of a government driven by radical idealogues.

Secondly, NASABA is perhaps the least appropriate "agency" to get involved in this issue. What is their expertise? What do they bring to the table? They seem to have more government partnerships than community partnerships, because local chapters of your organization are a long stretch from community partnerships, and frankly, their chapters aren't very happy with the National board and haven't been for a long time. Where is the statement of the local group that's working with these merchants, and has a better sense of what's happening down in Atlanta?

Third, what the hell does this press release even mean? Let's break down the title:

1) "DEA partners with NASABA
[that is already problematic, see above]...

2) to Rally South Asian store owners
[how the hell are they "rallying South Asian store owners" - by educating them about Meth? Is that really the problem here, that desi store owners don't know about meth and therefore, they are helping to promulgate drug use? Give me a break. Talk about not really conducting a thorough analysis of an issue]

3) to fight top drug problem in rural United States" [So basically, this means that NASABA believes that the way to "fight top drug problem in rural United States" is by "educating" store owners in major cities in the South? What specifically are they saying? That the South is rural - including the cities that they've named, like Atlanta and Houston? That store owners in real rural communities will actually have to travel to these cities to get "educated" about meth?]

Is any of this reasonable? More importantly, is this the appropriate focus for a program? Should we be looking at drug usage in our communities and unjust and selective targeting, or should we be looking for new ways to help law enforcement? What's next, a training program for cab drivers to identify and turn in traffic violators or fares conducting questionable phone transactions? Does this seem like missing the forest for the trees to anyone else out there?

Is easy supply of raw materials for meth production the key issue facing these and other South Asian merchants, or is this a problem where the government targeted a group of merchants in on of countless skirmishes in a hopeless "war on drugs" (more like the battle to maintain the status quo, but whatever).

Is this anything more than a publicity stunt to show government officials that NASABA is a "good" desi organization that they can partner with on initiatives that others may find questionable? That may end up costing the coalition and the merchants themselves the cases that they are fighting?

What gets to me is that NASABA has no real legs to stand on in this work. They may be sleeping with government agencies, and may even have some prominent firm and government attorneys involved with them as a professional organization, but why are they trying to put themselves forward as anything more than that? If they grew more of a backbone to truly support communities rather than put their own agenda front and center - perhaps then I would be more forgiving of ill-advised moves like this one.

But at this point, NASABA seems misguided and representative only of a small group of perspectives from the corps of South Asian American attorneys. They should leave civil rights work to civil rights advocates and stop muddling up the lines of communication with these occasional befuddled and confused volleys.

I've written more of my thoughts in this comment at SM, and I'm sure I'll post more as this continues to develop. The full press release (sent by NASABA's media consultant) is below, since I can't find it online.


U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Partners with South Asian Legal Group, NASABA to Rally South Asian store owners to fight top drug problem in rural United States

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- The North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) today announced a joint outreach project with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "C-Store Outreach Project," aimed at educating and creating awareness among the South Asian community about methamphetamine (meth). The outreach project comes in light of the recent increase in the prosecution of South Asian convenience store owners for selling common products to customers that can also be used to make meth; prosecutions many claim are racially motivated. According to a 2005 crime survey conducted by the National Association of Counties, meth has become the number one drug problem, surpassing cocaine, in rural and small towns in the US. Because ingredients to make meth are readily available over the counter, NASABA's outreach program is aimed at educating South Asian retailers, many of who have limited command of the English language, to be aware of purchases that can also be used for meth production such as common cold remedies, cooking fuels, kitty litter and aluminum foil. NASABA believes education and creating awareness among South Asian convenience store owners are key steps to fighting the drug problem.

"The problem requires educating store owners and operators who sell these harmless products that (a), the products can be used to make drugs, and (b), how not to be exploited by those who use convenience stores to purchase those products" said Habib F. Ilahi, Co-Chair of NASABA's Criminal Justice Committee. "We want to work with the DEA to break the language barrier and educate the c-store operators on what to watch out for. This will allow the South Asian community to take an active stand against the meth problem."

As part of the outreach, the DEA, with NASABA's input, has created a poster translated into several South Asian languages for retailers to post in their stores. The poster graphically depicts the items commonly used in meth production and directs store employees to contact the DEA if they suspect a customer purchasing items to produce meth. In addition, NASABA plans to hold forums in major cities like Atlanta and Houston, and has invited the DEA to speak to the community about how meth is made and what items store owners should keep an eye out for. The forums will also provide an opportunity for South Asian store merchants to direct any concerns and questions they may have directly to the DEA. "Meth has spread across our country like wildfire,
leaving only scars of human potential in its wake," said Mary Irene Cooper, Chief of Congressional & Public Affairs for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Retailers need to be part of this nation's strategy to effectively beat back this blaze. Fortunately, DEA is making progress fighting meth manufacturing and trafficking, and teens' use is declining. We are committed to working with allies like NASABA to promote knowledge about meth and further combat this deadly drug."

NASABA's President, Sabita Singh, understanding the need to educate, both the South Asian community and the DEA, explained that "NASABA hopes that this outreach program will help the nation's efforts to combat meth production while also helping to insure that South Asian store owners are not unfairly targeted by public entities." NASABA's C-Store Outreach Project is set to start in the first quarter of 2006.

The North American South Asian Bar Association advocates for the South Asian community and promotes alliances between South-Asian legal professionals in the United States and Canada. In addition, the organization supports those who value diversity in the legal profession and helps law students, and those interested in the law, develop contacts with practitioners. NASABA provides information to members on careers and the legal market and provides an avenue for professionals and community leaders to take an interest in matters of concern to the South-Asian community. (www.na-saba.org)


Chai said...

wow, had no idea that NASABA became a national organization in terms of partnering with gov't agencies.

interesting. who should i contact to speak my mind? who did you contact? did you get a response?

Rage said...

Haven't contacted anyone myself... just saw the press release and flipped out. Feel free to write their president, I think contact info is in the press release at the end of the post.

I think that the local South Asian bar associations are much more with it. I've heard a some grumbling from locals about the way that the national board takes its cues from anywhere but their membership.

It just doesn't make any sense to me.